Wednesday, 12 September 2012


I must admit that I've never really been a huge fan of photographic competitions. The whole concept that one lovely picture can be adjudged better than another lovely picture is a bit daft when you think about it. It's a very subjective process and it's really down to what particular image resonates with you as an individual. I've seen what I would describe as some pretty ropey photos winning prizes, whilst excellent ones fall by the wayside.

Even so, I have entered some of my own photos in competitions this year. If it's free to enter and there's a chance of winning a new camera or some vouchers, it would seem a bit silly not to have a go. But I've learned not get my hopes up too much - there are lots of people who enter with some really great images. It's really just a bit of fun and win or lose, it isn't a genuine indication of one's photographic ability.

At least that's what I thought until this afternoon when I had an email telling me one of my pictures which I had entered in a competition run by Pentax, was going to be exhibited at the Design Museum in London.

Suddenly competitions are brilliant things and I'm a fucking amazing photographer *struts round living room*.

Okay, obviously I'm deliberately being a bit over the top about it all. But I am genuinely thrilled that one of my photographs is to be exhibited at a pretty cool location. Plus I get an invite to a private viewing of the exhibition that will also be attended by TV and radio presenter Reggie Yates and Girls Aloud girl and actress, Sarah Harding. Exciting and a bit surreal!

I'm pleased that the photograph to be displayed is one of favourites from this summer:

Although Michael Johnson is an Olympic and Athletics legend, the little girl holding the torch really was the star of that morning's London 2012 event. During the performances by her choir, she was doing funky dance moves and pulling faces, always playing up for the camera. There was such a lovely happy and unified atmosphere at the event and I came away with a handful of photos that I was really pleased with, as well as a beaming smile and warm heart.

The thing I most like about all of this is that the picture is of one of my genuinely treasured memories. So for it to be put on public display and hopefully also enjoyed by other people too, is really special.

Now all I have to do is arrange my plus one for the viewing. A pimp like myself really need a plus three or four though, such is my immense popularity and need of an entourage. Who do I take? Maybe I should arrange a series of trials to decide this. These will mainly involve cake baking and a massage of my sore shoulders.

Although in actuality, I'll probably have to scrabble around and pay someone by the hour to come with me.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Blog brothers

So, two weeks into it and I'm really enjoying the whole blogging thing.

I now understand why it's so popular. The chance to air and share your views with the world, to hopefully help, entertain, stimulate and inspire, is a powerful draw. I know blogging has been going on for ages and I'm really late to this party, but better late than never (and I brought a bottle! Of Tippex!).

Having said this, I feel at the grand old age of two weeks, it's time for to have a baby sibling! As my many pages of scribbled notes will testify, I still have a ton of ideas for posts about photography and art. However, look among the spidery scrawl, and you will see ideas for posts about a range of other ideas.

So, I've decided to create as a mouthpiece for posts on all subjects other than art and photography. But everything else is up for consideration. By 'everything else' I probably mainly mean cakes, cricket and string theory (just how long is it?), but the fun part is seeing how it actually develops.

I could easily write a post everyday if that was all I had to do. Alas, in order to feed my blog-children with the electricity they need to function, I have to perform my paid duties as an office chimpanzee (or 'chimpanzed' if you prefer the English pronunciation). This sees me randomly typing on a keyboard whilst hoping nothing breaks and no one dies. Inevitably one's mind is left jaded from extended periods in the office zoo, so blogging is often going to be more intermittent than I would like, but please know that I'm always thinking of you.

Thanks so much to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on what I've written so far.

*hugs you all*

*realises I forgot to tell you I've just been chucking my own excrement around my cage*

*shares out hand sanitiser*

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Looking and seeing

Due to a variety of reasons - extended periods of ill health, family commitments, a fear of passport photo booths - I've done relatively little travelling in my life.

If travel broadens the mind, mine is probably the same width as the hair of a millipede's beard. But maybe a childhood absorbed by the BBC's Holiday program has somehow helped artificially extend my horizons.

The vast majority of people like to take photographs whilst on holiday - memories of friends and family to be forever cherished (or uploaded to Facebook to show everybody you know, just how much dignity you left at home). But if you're a photographer, you want to capture far more than an endearing but simple record of events.

If you're anything like me, you'll feel almost overwhelmed when visiting somewhere for the first time. Eyes opened afresh, surrounded by amazing new scenes, it can be hard to know where to point your camera next! Obviously this is a lovely position to be in. Your only concern is whether you've got enough memory with you to record all these new viewpoints.

But, don't think that frequent travel is an absolute must in order to take a continual stream of new pictures that you're happy with. Places that you're familiar with (perhaps even over-familiar) can also be a regular source of lovely photographs.

One of the greatest gifts that photography can give you is the development of a mindset, and the skill to see, an old place through new eyes. This can result in some observations that may make you gasp with astonishment as you suddenly notice, for example, the beautiful details in the facade of a building that you've walked past a hundred times before. As the seasons change, so does the life within your environment. The only fixed certainty is that nothing is ever static.

I have taken many pictures in my home town (or city even - it's only small, but we have a whopping great cathedral) of Salisbury, that are a fresh look at old sights. Take this one for example:

This is the doorway to a house that is situated on one of Salisbury's busiest roads. I honestly couldn't begin to estimate how many times I've been past it, but given that it's on my way home, it must literally be well into the thousands of the 14,000 days I've been alive.

Our brains do a marvellous job of filtering out the non-threatening and irrelevant. If it didn't, we would probably become overwhelmed and crumple, especially given the sheer quantity of information that we are subjected to in these times. But turn this filter off for a while, and suddenly you're seeing things through the eyes of the artist.

For me, this is such an exciting thing, I want to share it with the world. Look everyone! Look at the secret face - once so proudly welcoming visitors to a grand entrance; now shyly peeping through the dirty glass only to those who choose to look.

What made this discovery even more remarkable for me was that I had taken photographs of this door a couple of times previously (the texture of the peeling paint and overall former grandeur of the entrance fascinated me) but never had I noticed the extra decoration. It was like that, by having given some attention to this old place, it rewarded me with a gift. And rather than seeing this in some faraway land, the thrill of being startled by the sudden appearance of a ghostly face peering out, is all the better for happening somewhere so familiar.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Snap decision

I once knew a lady who lived to be well over 100 years old. At least that's what she told everyone - I never actually saw any documentary evidence and sometimes wondered if she was actually trying to pull a fast one to gain a bit of extra attention. But unless she had a remarkably poor beauty regime, the multitude of wrinkles on her face were testament enough to her advanced years.

People would often ask her the secret to this longevity (adding 10 years to your real age seems easiest to me, but was never mentioned) as if she may be taking some kind of magical elixir that one may be able to purchase in larger branches of Boots.

The thing that she swore gave her these extended years was chewing each mouthful of food many times over. I forget the exact amount but 36 springs to mind for some reason. In truth it's irrelevant to me as I'm lucky if it hits the sides on the way down. Based on this old lady 's theory, I should have died a long time ago.

But I guess there must be be an element of truth to chewing your way to old age. I'm no scientist and if Richard Dawkins were to read this he may well liken my idea to that of a teapot floating in space, but I guess chewing well means you are more likely to get the full nutritional benefits of what you're eating and minimise digestive problems. Who wouldn't live longer with a life free of belly ache?

It's this idea of good digestion that I want to bring into the photographic world. It may not extend your life, but it may extend your collection of pictures that you're happy with.

If you're anything like me, you kind of classify the photos you have taken into various categories of quality. Not necessarily in a formal way with a scale of points, but just a feeling in your gut that says 'this picture is ace' ranging down to an automatic delete.

The pictures at each pole of quality are easy to deal with. It's that tricky middle ground that can be hardest to decide on. Sometimes a picture that initially comes across as being a bit 'meh' and ordinary can, with a little work, turn into something exceptional.

When I'm not sure whether a photo has potential to be shared with others, I find it helpful to walk away from it for a bit. To digest it properly after having chewed it over. It's easy to get so involved with a picture that you no longer see it how it really is. Rather than discarding it forever, leave it for a week or two and come back to it afresh. This gives you the best chance to see it how everyone else will and you may be surprised at how pleased with it you turn out to be.

Here's a picture that I initially was very disappointed with (called 'eye on the prize'):

It's so close to being fully technically competent, but alas, because of the fast moving subject (and my lens having a less than speedy autofocus mechanism), the face of the gull is a touch out of focus.

With a photo of any living creature, it's generally really important that you have the face of the subject in focus, especially the eyes. Therefore, disgusted that this had come so close, I discarded it initially. But now, several months later as I revisit it here, I'm relieved I didn't delete it.

It may not win any awards for technical excellence, but I love the spirit that it conveys. The look of concentration and determination in the gull's eyes are clear to see, even if they are a touch blurred. Given that it's clear that this is an action shot, the slight fuzziness in places adds to the drama. There's enough going for it in other ways to make it a photo that I'm finally happy with.

We all know how persistent gulls can be and here we have that captured - this wily fellow will soon be enjoying beakfuls of bread, no matter what gets in his way. Let's hope he chews it at least 36 times.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

You only live once

So I woke up this morning after having had an amazing dream - Team GB had won 6 (six) gold medals on a single day, half of which were in one amazing evening of athletics. But then my sore throat assured me that, unless I had been screaming in my sleep, this had all happened for real! (Of course, there is always the question whether this waking reality is actually the dream and the things we dream about are our true existence - but that's something I'll explore in the blog I write in my sleeping world).

Mo Farrah was the main culprit for my husky throat - after being buffeted and blocked by some of the other competitors, streaking through to lead the final lap, is an image that will remain with me until I start to forget my own name and wander the streets in a confused state wearing just my pants.

It was fabulous to be able to share this euphoric experience on Twitter with the millions of other people watching the games. Tears of joy flowed as we all watched, transfixed by what is arguably the greatest evening of British sport ever witnessed.

After the cheers had died down and people tried to digest the unbelievable events that we had all just seen, a tweet with a certain theme started to emerge. Many people pointed out that the likes of Jess Ennis and Mo Farrah were genuine role models that our young people should aspire to be, rather than the likes of slack ladies who have slept with a premier league footballer or the vacuous star of a reality tv contest.

And who could argue with that? But of course, it is a far more difficult thing to achieve. Years of hard training and dedication are required on top of massive passion and hopefully at least some talent. Even then success is far from guaranteed - there can only ever be one gold medalist in each event at the games.

But of course, as anyone knows who have dedicated a large chunk of their lives to following a passion and doing all they can to fulfil their potential by working hard at a certain discipline, the winning isn't everything. The self respect and personal pride you earn for yourself by consistently trying your best will reap many rewards, even if the outside world never has the opportunity to witness your personal inner striving to maximise your skills.

Leading on from this, one of the mantras of the young and carefree nowadays is YOLO (an acronym for 'you only live once'). To me, the spirit of this saying is very much in keeping with maximising your potential and making the very most of your talents. Today though, in many circles it seems to have become a blanket excuse for reckless and shortsighted decisions, taken on impulse with little or no regard for the consequences.

If I could pass one piece of advice to the younger generation, it would be to embrace the spirit of YOLO fully, in the way that will bring you the most nourishing fulfilment. Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and all of our other top sportsmen and women have done this and are shining examples of what can be achieved if you are determined. If you abuse the gift that YOLO is trying to convey, it's entirely possible that at best, you'll end up appreciating what you had before as you now live with the consequences of an earlier rash decision.

Now, as you know this is predominantly a blog about photography, but so far it's hard to see a connection between what I've written and the pictures I take. But in fact there's a massive one. I think some of my favourite photographs I've ever taken are pictorial expressions of YOLO. They are celebrations of life - a split second still, representing the day being seized and life being lived fully and joyously.

Take this one for example:

This dear little fellow was one of the happiest creatures I've ever witnessed. Quite literally full of the joys of spring. Relishing his new found ability to swim and chase flies and even run on the surface of water. I hope that pictures of this kind touch that inner part of each of us that ignites our appetite for life. Even if we're not in the best of places right now, never lose sight that it is possible to reconnect with that exciting spark that is inherently in all of life.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Questions about life and cameras

It's funny how often the same old questions crop up in life.

Why are you still single?

Why don't you drive?

What new camera should I buy?

Mostly, the same stock answers will suffice. For example:

Because I'm married to my camera (and never have trouble turning her on).


It's better for the environment (and all pedestrians everywhere if I don't).

But boy oh boy, that third one really does take some answering.

I'm always happy to help people with it (I adore new cameras), but any personal advice of this type given to friends comes with great responsibility. If the camera doesn't work out for whatever reason, I end up feeling guilty about it and you can only avoid people for so long.

Therefore, nowadays I'll just raise some general points to consider and possibly offer one or two examples of specific makes and models that may fit the bill, but very much leave the enquirer to make the final decision.

I don't have direct experience of the majority of cameras out there. I might have read about their technical specs and reviews of what other people think, but nothing can beat the evaluation that the comes from spending time with a camera yourself and putting it through its paces.

The experience I've had with my own purchasing decisions is that no matter how much research you do into it, there is never one clear overriding candidate that is head and shoulders above the rest. Often there will be several that would do the job perfectly well, so the final selection criterion comes down to the best value for money offer from that range.

Some people swear by one particular manufacturer over all others. There are many who appear to choose 'Team Canon' or 'Team Nikon', cheering them loudly above all overs. From one point of view, I can understand this, especially if you have bought a camera with interchangeable lenses. Once you have bought even just a couple of extra lenses for your camera body, you will inevitably have committed at least several hundred pounds into equipment that will work only on the equipment of one particular manufacturer.

However, overall I have real difficulty in understanding why some people insist that my Canon is better than your Nikon, just for the sake of argument. It reminds me of being a teenager again where kids would argue that their Spectrum was better than your Commodore, or their Chopper is better than your Grifter (ah! the whiff of nostalgia). I guess the desire to choose a side is partly down to our inherent tribalism and even more so due to our insecurities.

The truth is both Canon and Nikon make really great cameras and lenses. As do Sony, Pentax and Olympus etc. If you have invested in or have easy access to the lenses of one of these manufacturers, then it'd probably make sense to stick with that system. But otherwise, please don't get caught up in the brand arguments some fanboys and girls get involved with.

One of the headline specifications that have been used to market digital cameras since they first emerged as a choice for the average consumer back in the latter years of last century, is the megapixel count. I remember the first digital camera I bought (manufactured by Epson!), had a spec of a whopping 1 megapixels. Soon potential buyers were being lured with higher and higher resolutions that rocketed into double figures before too long. Although in the very early days, this figure generally meant there was an improvement in I picture quality, there a became a point of diminishing returns and image quality improvement either remained unnoticeable or even actually got worse, especially in cameras with a smaller sensor size.

In fact it's this sensor size that is actually crucial in determining what kind of picture quality can be expected. Although it is a prominent feature mentioned in the tech specs (and one of the first things a camera enthusiast will look for when hearing of a new model), it was never as headline grabbing as megapixel count and therefore is only gradually seeping into the mind of the average customer when considering a new purchase.

Now, I'm no technical expert in anything at all, so my explanation about the workings of sensors and megapixels may horrendously offend you if you have a good grasp of digital imaging mechanics. But, if you're happy enough to know the general principles without full details, then let me enlighten you with the very basic principles.

Basically the larger the size of an image sensor, the better the potential image quality is. The megapixels are housed within this sensor, so if you have a small image sensor with 16 megapixels crammed on there, you will most likely get less satisfactory results than if they are spread over a larger sensor. Here they have more room to breathe, allowing more light to be captured by each. This is why some cameras with only a 10 or 12 megapixel count take a cleaner, crisper image than those with a 16 or 18 rate. Magical sunbeams and pixie-rainbows are also involved but I'll save those for another time.

The best, pro-level digital cameras have what is known as a full-frame sensor (which is the biggest you can get in a digital SLR) whilst a typical compact camera only has a teeny weeny one. As well as amazingly resolved pictures, another advantage of a larger sensor is that you can more easily achieve a really nice out of focus background when taking a portrait for example. The exact same settings on a compact would produce very different, less impressive results.

To me, the most important feature in a camera is the image quality it will produce. Although other bells and whistles can be fun, the underlying reason you're using a camera is to take photographs. Many compact cameras offer some amazing features such as zooms that may range from 24mm right up to 1000mm! Although this is very impressive in some respects and undoubtedly convenient, it inevitably represents a compromise on how good the pictures will look.

Personally I'd say it's better to have a more basic, bulkier digital camera with a fixed or limited zoom lens and a good sized sensor-versus-pixel-count rather than some amazingly versatile, pocket-sized piece of kit that theoretically does everything, but in practice, produces pictures with inferior image quality.

This is where it gets tricky though. I'm a photographer. I want to produce the very best images possible. But I appreciate that some people are happy to take snaps of their family. Or some people want something that slips into their pocket and don't want the inconvenience that sometimes comes with using interchangeable lenses. Even so, I always try and recommend that people forego the gimmicks and choose a camera with solid image performance above everything else.

I'd also always suggest that you look one step upwards from where you think you want to be. That's because if you're serious about taking nice pictures, it won't be long before you find yourself wanting to push on and try some equipment that's a touch better.

So if you're thinking of getting a compact camera, take a look at the range of compact system cameras instead (larger sensors with interchangeable lenses, but still small bodies). If you're thinking of getting a CSC, maybe look at the next model up in that range or consider a digital SLR instead.

Cost is also an important factor, but shop round and you can find some amazing price discrepancies between various retailers, leading to some really great bargains. I'd advise you to invest as much as you can afford, but depending on your budget, don't blow it all on the camera itself. A cheaper model with a better lens will probably produce better results than a better camera but with the standard kit lens.

In summary, there's no easy answer to a question about which camera to buy. I'm hoping that this post may have given you something to think about if you are in the market for some new kit. If you have any questions about a purchasing decision, by all means get in touch. But don't be surprised if my answer is a series of points to think about rather than a clear cut recommendation!

P.S. I always like to include a photo in every post, so given the subject, it would seem appropriate that it's one of me with my camera (caught in the headlight of a Harley):

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Back to the streets again

I very often find that when I externalise my thoughts, whether it be through having an in-depth discussion or writing this blog, new ideas and concepts will fall into the space left by those recently departed. It reminds me of the old video game of Tetris where different shaped blocks keep falling to replace those that have served their purpose and vanished.

This continual flow feels much healthier than keeping everything inside, letting my thoughts trundle round my head left to stagnate. I guess this is why so many people enjoy writing - it is a genuine form of therapy. Even the tiny bite sized chunks we share on sites like Twitter can benefit us, hence its popularity (I think its a forum for the mental ramblings we need to evacuate each day, in the exact same way we need to eradicate our waste products). Social networking keeps our minds regular!

The reason I mention this is that after writing yesterday's blog on street photography, I now inevitably have further thoughts about it that have bubbled to the surface. Therefore whilst the subject is fresh in our minds, I'm going to add a little more to it.

For me, the key to street photography (and also most other genres) is for the subjects to appear as natural as possible. Candid portraits of people going about their business or resting on a bench can, by definition, only be taken without them realising a picture has been shot. As soon as most of us are aware that we have a camera focused on us, we tend to go one of two ways - either we react uncomfortably and feel shy or our inner starlet shines through and we start posing and pouting. Neither outcome makes for much in the way of a decent photograph (although there are always exceptions to this as with everything else).

So, ideally the street photographer needs to be fairly inconspicuous and record our observations of the human species without them even realising. This does create a moral issue around privacy invasion and potentially even voyeurism. From a legal point of view, one can generally take photographs of anyone and everything if you are are in a public place. This is good news, but of course, legalities and ethical conduct are often far removed. For me, the fact it's not against the law isn't enough.

There will be many points of view as to whether taking a picture surreptitiously is a good or bad thing (to use the most basic black and white of judgements). I believe that at the end of the day, the morality of it all comes down to your personal inner feelings - a mixture of your intent and intuition. When I'm taking pictures of this sort, I know that I'm not some kind of pervert or deviant. I know from the bottom of my heart that I'm doing this as a genuine artistic endeavour that celebrates the diverse nature of life and humanity.

However I would never feel comfortable suddenly surprising someone, sticking a lens in their face paparazzi-style and hounding them as they did their shopping (even though this is legal and wouldn't even be classed as stalking if it happened on only one occasion).

I believe you have to be sensitive to the situation you're in and therefore, no single rule can ever be applied to cover all scenarios. For example, although I always try to be as unobtrusive as possible, when taking photos of children I always make myself known to the parents so that a) I'm not seen as a weirdo lurking in the shadows whilst spying on kids and b) the parents can object if they're not happy with what I'm doing.

At the end of the day, I know that my motivation for doing any kind of street photography is wholesome and honest. In fact I believe you need this integrity in order to have the confidence to take pictures of people in public. If you haven't ever done so, try taking your camera out into the streets by yourself and take some candid portraits. You may be surprised at how difficult it can initially be to get over the fact that whatever your intent, you're still breaking social rules. I suspect that even the most determined weirdo wouldn't ever be this open about taking pictures if perversion was his motive.

That's not to say that you won't get jibed by your mates when you show them a candid portrait of an attractive 20something (although I find that doesn't happen so much when you show them the same but with a wrinkly 80 year-old as the subject). Although this used to sadden me somewhat, I've now learned that art provokes all kinds of different reactions and their source is, of course, inside the viewer. Any kind of teasing from your audience or questions about your reasons for taking such pictures are a reflection of what's going on inside the minds of your audience and not yours. Once you realise this, it can be fascinating to see what comments others come out with - they can be very revealing indeed!

I'd like to share another of my favourite street photographs with you:

When I saw this couple walking along, I was struck by how perfectly in synch they were with one another. Their footsteps and body movements were in complete harmony and they really did look like a single, complete entity. They were incredibly relaxed and a perfect embodiment of 'easy going'. I love how even the markings on the soles of their matching shoes are very similar, suggesting they have trodden the exact same path together in this way for many miles. Street photography captures all aspects of the emotional spectrum, but I always find it nourishing when that is a positive, romantic and uplifting moment.